(WBIR-Knoxville) The University of Tennessee Medical Center is seeing an increase in the amount of patients opting for lung cancer screenings.

A panel of medical experts recently recommended an annual screening for those at high risk for the deadly disease. It is a move that could help millions of current and former smokers.

The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force is calling for low-dose computed tomography, also known as CT scans, for lung cancer.

UT Medical Center offers lung cancer screenings through low-dose CT scans, meaning patients are exposed to less radiation.

"Unfortunately a chest x-ray just isn't sensitive enough to catch early lung cancers at a stage where they can be reliably cured," said Dr. Tom Gaines, associate professor in the Division of Cardiothoracic Surgery.

The screening is only recommended to those at a high risk for lung cancer. That includes those who smoked a pack a day for 30 years, aged 55 to 80 years old, and who can withstand an operation. It also includes former heavy smokers who have quit within the previous 15 years.

"I smoked for 12 years, 25 years ago. So I didn't feel like that was something I needed to worry about but obviously it was," said Jim Howell, a lung cancer survivor.

Howell works the heart-lung machine for Dr. Gaines. The pair have worked together for more than 20 years.

Four years ago, Howell went in for a routine stress test and ended up undergoing a CT scan. From the CT scan, doctors found lung cancer.

"I would've never found it. I don't think. I had had previous x-rays and it never showed up on it," he recalled.

Dr. Gaines added, "We sort of get coincidental screening for lung cancer. Up until now, that's been the way that most early stage lung cancer is diagnosed."

Screening is currently not covered by Medicare, Tenncare or other insurances. However, under the Affordable Care Act, it is possible in the future that insurance plans could be required to cover them.

"It's a large expense and that's why there's been some reluctance to have all the payers pay for lung cancer screening," Dr. Gaines said.

The task force's study shows high-risk patients who received three annual CT scans were able to catch the lung cancer early, and lower lung cancer deaths by up to 20%.

The CT scan caught Howell's cancer early.

"We kind of dropped everything and went to surgery and seven days later I was home and back to work," Howell said.

According to UT Medical Center's website, the screening is available as a cash only service. It cost $199 per scan.

Dr. Gaines added the best way to prevent lung cancer is by not smoking.

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